Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages

Do you want to know why that message that you sweated over and poured your soul into fell onto an audience that didn't seem to care nearly as much as you, and really not even as much as you expected?

You thought through it, your ideas and statistics and and bullet points were arranged just so that in the end you could come up with your big idea - but nobody understood why this was the big idea! Or maybe they said, Yeah, we agree, but so what?

Chances are your big idea that you worked over, found studies that agree with you, and you even know, you know, that people aren't really doing is something like "companies need great customer service." You just know that without this idea companies are going to struggle, and you have the proof that they are. But people in the audience, or your boss, or co-workers, or congregants, or your kids' sports team are yawning like it is no big deal!

The Heath brothers want to tell you why no one is listening to your incredibly important message: They are thinking Duh. In Made To Stick (72):

Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When messages sound like common sense, they float gently in one ear and out the other. And why shouldn't they? If I already "get" what you're trying to tell me, why should I obsess about remembering it? The danger, of course, is that what sounds like common sense often isn't... It's your job, as a communicator, to expose the parts of your message that are uncommon sense.

As an example, Nordstrom wanted to explain to its employees that they need "great customer service." They could have said that, and employees would have yawned. Instead the chose to provide stories that are shocking if you have ever worked in retail (examples come from Built To Last):

  • The Nordie who ironed a new shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon;
  • The Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy's;
  • The Nordie who warmed customers' cars in winter while they finished shopping;
  • The Nordie who made a last-minute delivery of party clothes to a frantic hostess;
  • And even the Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains - although Norsdstrom doesn't sell tire chains

Nordstrom understands that customer service is important, but just saying that doesn't get you anywhere. Now all of a sudden you are comparing what you are supposed to do with the examples. Am I providing that level of customer service?

What if instead your message was something more like "Customer Service Is The Only Thing" or "Customers Are More Important Than The CEO." What is the uncommon message, in story form or in a way that surprises or shocks the audience? What if you could tell your idea in a way that actually goes against the grain, yet solves a problem?

Now you have something worth sitting up and listening to.

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